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Middle East


Monkey Business

A monkey reaches for the camera at the Alas Kedaton Temple in Bali, Indonesia. (6540)

A friend recently shot me a message asking for some tips on how to take “amazing” photos. Another time we can debate the definition of “amazing photos,” but here’s what I told her:

I think the biggest misconception is your picture is only as good as you like it.

As an example, while I was traveling through the Middle East, a woman staying on the same boat showed me her favorite picture from all of Egypt. It was a blurry picture of her sister dancing. And her sister was half-missing from the image. But it was her favorite picture, and that’s what’s important. Never mind the pyramids of Giza, the sphinx, Luxor or any of that, it was her sister dancing. Point being: Any picture is only as good as long as you like it. A few of my favorite shots barely move the meter for other people, and then some shots I totally blow off as crap seem to get the biggest responses. I haven’t figured out “the masses” yet, but I plan on working on them as soon as I figure out “what women want.”

That being said, I have picked up a few photographically-based things which may help on your journey:

Shoot with the sun over your shoulder. A camera, like the human eye, usually grabs on to the brightest thing it sees and exposes for that. If you shoot into the sun your camera will freak out over the giant ball of light and may underexpose what you actually want to take a picture of. If the sun is behind you everything will be bathed in light.

Try to stick with the rule of thirds. Somewhere, a group of people much smarter than you and I realized the eye thinks things shot with the rule of thirds is sexier. Divide the screen of your camera into three equal parts and frame the shot accordingly. If you don’t have an easy “three” things to frame up in the shot, keep the subject to the left and right thirds or “use” two of the three.

The early-morning and late-afternoon sunlight are your friend. It’s called “Golden Hour” because the sun is lower in the sky and everything it touches has a sexy, golden look to it.

Before you go, check out other pictures of where you’re going on Flickr, Instagram, Google Images, etc.; not to the point of “stealing” other people’s shots, but at least having an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Before Ireland I was able to find enough pictures of the Cliffs of Moher to discern which direction the famous shoreline faced, and from that what time of day to visit. (Fun fact: to not shoot into the sun I knew to visit in the afternoon.)

Finally, break all of the above tips as often as possible, as rules were meant to be broken. Some of the best pictures you’ve seen are crazy silhouettes taken directly into the sun, pictures that put the subject in the center of the shot, and pictures taken while the sun is blasting the most light it can onto something.

Those are probably the most basic things I can try to give you tips on. Most is based off of what I’ve read and been told along the way. What I really do know and can tell you about photography is bring at least one more memory card than you think you need, keep your batteries charged and send home a couple of postcards. Everyone loves postcards.

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Posted in Travel Tagged , |

Selling Colored Powder at Holi Fest

Last  night I was digging through various folders on my computer and I came upon a BBC list of “50 Places to See Before You Die.”

These lists always annoy me, because if you’re a foodie, New York City should be numbers one through fifty on the list. If you’re into history and old stuff, parts of China, all of Europe and the some of the Middle East should be on your list. If you’re into culture, the list would be completely different. What about going on a safari on South Africa to see animals in the wild?

When I counted, I was proud to have been to nearly half of the locations on the list. However, the list included a vague visit to “Florida” (Lakeland, anyone?), but had a very specific location like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on it.

Look, BBC, if you’re going to give us a list of 50 awesome places to go, maybe include a specific part of Florida to visit. The Keys, perhaps? Tallahassee doesn’t have much to offer in the way of beaches and tropical settings. Also, why isn’t “Holi Fest” in India, included? Holi Fest is mostly celebrated by Hindus as the festival of color.

In India, locals stock up on colored powered and in the days leading up to Holi, throw said powder at each other. If you’re short on time, powder can be purchased from many street vendors along the way (like the one above).

This past March, my wife and I visited India during Holi Fest. We didn’t just “swing by” as the timing would allow, but we made an effort to get to the absolute epicienter of Holi Fest in India — Vrindavan.

Vrindavan is said to be the city where Lord Krishna was born, and the next town over is where he studied. Men, women and children all come out to participate in the festival of colors. Entire families are throwing colored power at each other in the streets.

As far as trips go, it was the one adventure testing my wife and my patience and travel abilities. We found out later a lot of locals — who don’t normally consume alcohol — go waaaaaaay overboard on the stuff during the fest. It explained a lot of things along the way, but it still doesn’t explain why India was left off the list of 50 Places to See Before You Die (well, the Taj Mahal made the list, but Delhi or Holi Fest is nowhere to be found). If you’re interested, below is the list. I’ve put an asterisk behind the locations I’ve visited:

1. The Grand Canyon*

2. Great Barrier Reef

3. Florida*

4. South Island

5. Cape Town*

6. Golden Temple

7. Las Vegas*

8. Sydney

9. New York*

10 .Taj Mahal*

11. Canadian Rockies

12. Uluru

13. Chichen Itza, Mexico

14. Machu Picchu, Peru

15. Niagara Falls

16. Petra, Jordan*

17. The Pyramids, Egypt*

18. Venice

19. Maldives

20. Great Wall of China*

21. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

22. Hong Kong*

23. Yosemite National Park

24. Hawaii

25. Auckland, New Zealand

26. Iguassu Falls

27. Paris

28. Alaska*

29. Angkor Wat, Cambodia*

30. Himalayas, Nepal*

31. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil*

32. Masai Mara, Kenya

33. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador*

34. Luxor, Egypt*

35. Rome*

36. San Francisco*

37. Barcelona

38. Dubai*

39. Singapore

40. La Digue, Seychelles

41. Sri Lanka

42. Bangkok*

43. Barbados

44. Iceland

45. Terracotta Army, China*

46. Zermatt, Switzerland

47. Angel Falls, Venezuela

48. Abu Simbel, Egypt*

49. Bali*

50. French Polynesia


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Posted in Travel Tagged , |

Hidden Treasury

In the early 1800s, I couldn’t imagine stumbling upon the famous rock-cut architecture of PetraJordan while wandering through the deserts of the Middle East.

In 1812 the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt did just that.

Burckhardt was living in Syria at the time and had heard locals talk of an ancient rose-colored city not far from where he was. In 1812 he set out and “discovered” the ancient trade mecca which had been forgotten about for nearly 1,000 years. Given the sheer awesomeness of walking up to the historical site now days, I couldn’t imagine doing it then. We have all seen pictures of the ancient city carved into the side of a mountain, or we’ve watched movies (Indiana Jones comes to mind) which were set there as well. However, in 1812, being the first European to walk down the narrow Siq and see The Treasury unveil itself had to be a pretty spectacular experience.

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Posted in Scenic Tagged , |

Inside the Burj Al Arab Hotel

Located in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is the Burj Al Arab hotel.  The hotel boasts its rating as the only “seven star hotel in the world,” but since hotel ratings only go up to five, it’s just a self-proclaimed title.  What you need to know is it’s a fancy place.  Reeeeeally fancy place.

The Burj Al Arab hotel sits on reclaimed land in the ocean and has a private bridge connecting the property to the mainland.  At the start of the private bridge, security is heavily controlled and only those with reservations may enter. Knowing this, Alisha found we could still enter by making “afternoon tea” or “cocktail hour” reservations.  (Those, too, are pricey, but far cheaper than the $2,000 per night for a room.)

We decided to show up a bit earlier than our afternoon tea reservation so we could wander around the hotel to see what opulence looks like.  For as nice as the staff was, as clean as the facility was and as comfortable as the hotel is, I can understand the four-digit price-tag per night.  I just can’t afford the four-digit price-tag per night.

So today’s picture is looking directly up from the second floor of the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel.  Out of context it’s a crazy looking tunnel that reminds of something I’d see in a space movie (in the Middle East Gallery is a black and white version that’s really space movie-like). Having been there and viewed things first hand, it’s no space movie set, it’s sheer opulence.

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Posted in Travel Tagged , |

South Africa Travel Tips

King of the Road

My wife and I loved South Africa and have been meaning to go back ever since. (Unfortunately there are a few other countries we haven’t been to that we’d like to explore before we start repeating places.)

Overall, we didn’t care for Johannesburg much. We met a couple on our safari and they were from “Jo-berg.” They told us no one ever drives with their car windows down as people will just reach through your windows to grab stuff (or worse). We stayed at a B&B and were about to leave for dinner when the proprietor stopped us and told us to take only what is absolutely necessary and leave everything else behind and walk only down the middle of the street (it was a quiet neighborhood). She said go directly to and from dinner and do not wander around. While I’m sure parts of the city are lovely, we didn’t get much of a good impression as even the locals had a “this place is awful but it’s what we call home” attitude. That being said, it is a HUGE city and fascinating to see none-the-less.

Cape Town, on the other hand, we loved. It was friendly. It had great restaurants. It had beautiful scenery. It was fantastic.

Table Mountain is where everyone takes a gondola up to the top and can see to the edges of the earth. While we were there it was closed for renovations so I cannot attest to whether it’s worth it or not.

The V&A Waterfront is where a lot of the restaurants are. We enjoyed strolling around taking in everything from fancy restaurants to street musicians and the general “harbor vibe” the entire area had. A regret is we waited until our last night to go down to see it and we certainly wish we would have discovered it sooner.

I can’t remember where exactly, but someplace in downtown Cape Town my wife and I threw down some beers one night. We generally try to do this one night while on vacation wherever we are. Whether we chug rum swizzles in Bermuda, caipirinhas in Brazil or only God knows what that was in Panama, we try to take in a hearty slice of the local night life. Whatever region it was, it had a number of bars within a couple of blocks. Everyone was out. Everyone was having a good time. Whatever bar we were at had a cover band trying their best and an enormous selection of cider beers. At the end of the night (after crushing some late-night food) we flagged down a taxi and headed back to where we were staying. While all taxis are metered, few meters are regulated; ask your driver ahead of time how much it will take to get you back to your hotel and base part of your decision to enter the car based on that.

We stayed at Atlantic View while in Cape Town and it was up in the hills towards Table Mountain. Below us, near the waterfront, was a lesser-known restaurant district (Camps Bay, I think). Most restaurants faced the water and we had our pick of places to dine while we watched the sun set over the ocean. My wife and I were just reminiscing about this trip and we truly enjoyed strolling along picking out a restaurant. Since it was their winter, there was a chilly breeze off the ocean, but nothing a fleece couldn’t fix.

Atlantic View, as I’m sure most places do, offer up a host of tourist options. Two we chose were visiting Cheetah Outreach and Wildlife Trust, where one of the perks is getting to pet a cheetah. It’s pretty quick and simple but also damn cool. We were the first to arrive so we got our tickets and were then the first to be allowed in to do some giant cat petting. Everyone arriving after us had to sit and watch us. It was nice to be first for a couple of reasons. One is that it was slightly “more special” because we were the first of the day. Being the 25th person to do such a thing wouldn’t have been so cool. The second reason it was cool is we were in, out and on our way to the next thing. We didn’t have to stand in line for a half-an-hour while fifteen people in front of us all had a couple of minutes each to pet a cheetah. I could see waiting around watching others pet the cheetah getting old quickly.

The second thing we did was the obligatory wine tour. We visited two or three vineyards and each rolled out the red carpet for us. (It may have been a honeymoon thing or it may have been standard operating procedure.) I’m sure you’ve done a wine tasting before (or at least something similar), but what I can most certainly advise is to be cautious when ordering delicious, delicious wine to send home. Make sure the vineyard has a distributer in your home country. If they don’t you’ll have to pay all sorts of taxes and tariffs, and you’ll have to find someone to be a licensed importer for you. Everyone I called in Chicago only wanted to deal with me if was importing 6,000 cases of wine, not six bottles. Of the two vineyards we ordered from, one had a US distributer and the other didn’t. The vineyard who didn’t was kind enough to refund our credit card when we told them it wasn’t working out for us.

If time permits, I strongly, strongly recommend a safari while in South Africa. The self-driving tour through Kruger National Park can work out in a pinch, but it is so much better if you can go enjoy a private game reserve. Two nights/three days would be a minimum. We went with Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve and their property butts up against Kruger National Park. (Well, sort of. Their property sits along the Sand River and directly across is Kruger.) Kruger is a five-hour drive on a national highway from Johannesburg. Our game reserve had its own private air strip and flights leave daily from the Jo-berg airport. It’s a twelve-passenger plane and can get you there in about an hour. The plane stops at a few other game reserves and a highlight, for me at least, is one of the airstrips was gravel. Taking off and landing on rocks makes me appreciate the fancy concrete runways so much more. Safaris vary in price, quality and, experience. The car ride through Kruger will probably offer you a glimpse of animals in “the wild”, but a private game reserve is a far better experience. (Obviously you get what you pay for. Sabi Sabi isn’t cheap, but I cannot recommend it enough.)

We went to South Africa in early-August, which is their winter. It’s the best time to go on a safari because the grass isn’t as long and there are less watering holes so the animals all congregate at the same few. Dress in layers because, near Kruger, the temperature was 0F at sunrise but 70F by mid-day. Near the ocean there is much more of a narrow range of temperatures so a long-sleeved shirt was fine during the day and a fleece worked at night. Everyone we encountered spoke English (although some with a heavy accent) so language wasn’t an issue for us.

While we were in the region we also explored Namibia, which is the least populated country in the world. If you have time, I’d say one reason to go is to see the stars. We drove to Sossusvlei and spent a couple of nights at the Sossus Dune Lodge. Because the desert is so dry and Sossusvlei is so remote, there was no light pollution. At all. The stars were amazing. While in southern Africa, if you’ve got the time, I’d recommend exploring the option of visiting Namibia, and specifically the Sossusvlei region. The adventure to and from was almost as good as sitting under the stars in the middle of the pitch-black desert. (You can read more at my page with Namibia Travel Tips.)

We truly loved our South African experience from the uber-populated Johannesburg to sitting by ourselves watching the sun set behind the sand dunes in Namibia, the world’s least populated country. No matter when you go, you’ll have a wonderful, wonderful time, whether you follow in our exact footsteps or create your own.

And send home postcards. Everybody loves getting postcards.


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Posted in Travel Tagged , , |

Tribune Towers Over Regeneration

Tribune Towers Over Regeneration

On the Michigan Avenue bridge spanning the Chicago River, there are four sculptures on each of the four bridge houses. One represents discovery, one represents the pioneers early to the midwest, one represents defense in the 1812 Battle of Fort Dearborn, and on the Southeast corner, Regeneration depicts life in Chicago as the city rebuilds following the fire of 1871.

One of the fun footnotes of this bridge is the Southwest bridgehouse has been converted into a museum, which allows people to learn the history of the Chicago River and its bridge houses. Somewhat nifty is one can climb to the top to see the size of the workspace and down to the bottom to view the gear room.

During the spring and fall, when the bridges are raised to allow boats to travel up and down the river, tourists can also sit in the gear room to watch everything work as the bridge does its thing.

I’ve been in the museum and it is a fun-yet-quiet history lesson of Chicago in the middle of one of its most crowded areas.

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Posted in Scenic Tagged , |

Namibia and its Sand Dunes

Namibia and its Sand Dunes

My wife and I went to Namibia in August of 2011 as part of our honeymoon. While taking a break from the planning of our wedding, I was reading a magazine that had images of crazy-high sand dunes on the cover. My wife and I literally said “Let’s go there!”

So we did.

We booked the trip entirely on our own, so we didn’t go through any tours or travel companies.

After landing in Windhoek, Namibia‘s tiny little airport, it wasn’t difficult to find the rental car counter. After checking in for our reservation my wife and I were taken outside and given a COMPLETE tour of the vehicle. We requested a 4×4 through a few different companies, but no one had any. We had to settle for a standard truck and just hope for the best. The rental agent went over every tiny detail about our truck like a father was letting his sixteen year-old kid take the car for the first time. I would later understand the rental agent’s thoroughness.

About 70% of the roads in Namibia are unpaved, and that 30% paved is pretty much downtown Windhoek. Namibia one of the least densely populated countries on earth, so there really isn’t any money or need for the government to get paving.

On our travels from Windhoek to the village of Sossusvlei in Namib Naukluft Park it would be about a five hour drive, four of which were on rough gravel roads. At times, my wife and I would drive for what seemed like an hour before we passed another vehicle going the opposite direction. The solitude was comical as it was terrifying. After 45-minutes or so my wife and I would start laughing about how ridiculous the road conditions were, then a few minutes later get back into our “okay, done with this” attitude. The fun went away for good when we cut a tire and had to pull over on the side of the road to change it. We were just beyond halfway in our journey, and although we had a full-sized spare, it was our only spare. Any trouble beyond that would mean we’re up Shit Creek without paddles. Our rental agency had an emergency phone number, but not surprisingly neither of our phones worked in the remote desert that is nearly all of Namibia. Furthermore, in the period of time leading up to our flat, it had probably been close to an hour since we saw our last vehicle, and it would be another 45 minutes to an hour of driving before we would see another one. Add in twenty minutes to change a tire and you have the idea of the remote and scariness of it all.

After finally reaching our destination, the Namib Naukluft Park, we gladly ditched our car and went straight for the bar. We stayed inside the park gates at the Sossus Dune Lodge which is an all-inclusive resort, and that was good because that last thing my wife and I needed to do was go out and look for a dinner option at this point. Additionally, we were staying inside the park’s gates, which close at sunset. Obviously we couldn’t go far if we couldn’t get out or, once out, back inside.

Staying inside the park was a wonderful advantage and I highly recommend it. At Dune 45, one of the park’s more famous places, tourists were sitting along the peak of the 500-foot tall sand dune watching the sun set. As it dipped low in the sky, each one packed up their belongings and made their way to the cars. As the sun slipped behind the miles and miles of sand dunes along the horizon, my wife and I were the only ones at the park since everyone else had to be out before sunset, lest they be locked inside. That is one huge advantage of staying within the park, the other is the sunrise side of things. We booked a tour (through our lodge) to head to the Big Mama and Big Daddy Sand Dunes for sunrise. The sand-blasting wind was something I’ll never forget (nor be able to accurately describe), but then again neither is sitting atop a MASSIVE sand dune watching the sun slowly peak up over the horizon. By the time the sun was high in the sky, a few other tour companies had arrived, but we were so far ahead of them it was fantastic.

Speaking of fantastic: The stars. Never in my life have I seen so many stars. July is winter in Namibia, so the air lacks humidity. Additionally, being so far removed from any civilization gave us zero light pollution. At night, we’d sit for hours and watch countless shooting stars streak across the sky.

There isn’t much to do in this area of Namibia so I’d only recommend two or three nights. Take the sunrise tour of Big Daddy Sand Dune, stay up and watch the stars, and enjoy hiking around the rest of area during the day time. We did venture into town briefly (to get our tire fixed) and there wasn’t much beyond a couple of gas stations with oversized convenience stores attached.

On our journey back to Windhoek, we decided to take the longer route because it had more traffic. We would sometimes go twenty or thirty minutes between passing cars, which was far better than the “shorter” route we took to Sossusvlei. Before we left the resort, the girl checking us out recommended we stop in Solitaire for some apple pie. I can certainly vouch for the apple pie, but more so it was a nice break a few hours into the journey (we would have stopped anyway, just for the stretch, but the pie was certainly a nice touch). Additionally, there are a couple of signs along the way marking the Tropic of Capricorn which is a fun place to stop and take pictures.

The road back to Windhoek twists and turns quite a bit. At times, the ledge is a straight drop down the side and guardrails are nowhere to be found. Other times you’ll splash through a river running through the roadway. If this is your first or second trip out of the country I’d suggest going to some other country first. If you’ve been to a couple dozen countries you’ll be just fine.

Both roads to and from Sossusvlei take the traveler miles and miles through private game reserves. Its fun to see ostriches, springbok, monkeys, warthogs and zebras all watch the passing cars. Be prepared to stop. One of the highlights from our trip back to Windhoek was a group of six zebras curious of our car. My wife and I stopped to stare at them, as they were staring at us. When we decided it was time to head out, the zebras galloped alongside our car for nearly a mile.

We spent our final night in Windhoek at Roof of Africa, and one of the perks was gated, secured parking area. Not that crime is rampet in Windhoek (like, say, Johannesburg, SA), but things still happen. This hotel is also walking distance to Joe’s Beer House, which is famous for the different types of game one can try. It’s a HUGE restaurant that has a fire pit in the middle, long picnic table style of seating and plenty of cold beer. Even though it’s winter, beer still tastes damn good after a long journey.

On our final day, while traveling to the airport we ditched our rental truck at the drop-off site. The guy who painstakingly went over our car before we rented it out was back to do the same before receiving. The purchased insurance didn’t cover the frame, the windshield or the tires; three things we thought odd as we left, three things we completely understand upon arrival. The man seemed almost heartbroken when he discovered our patched tire. We tried to explain our displeasure in calling their help line and not getting any help (from the Sossus Dune Lodge), but he’s the car mechanic and not customer service, so he didn’t really care. As he walked us to the rental car counter to tell them about our damaged tire, he casually made a passing comment of “you know, we can solve this ourselves before we get to the counter.” I caught it; my wife didn’t. As we get to the counter, our car was perfectly fine and there are no issues or damage to report. My wife, who knows the tire had a hole and still isn’t pleased with no one helping us via the “help line” started to speak up but was quickly “shhhh-ed” and pulled away by me, while the mechanic-guy says she was mistaken. It’s only then my wife realized a deal had been made and I paid the mechanic to take care of it, instead of going though all of the paperwork and making an official report. As annoyed my wife was about not being informed of our deal, she completely understood that I can’t just turn to her and yell out “Hey honey, I just bought off the mechanic!”

As odd as the airport and rental car return may have been, it was a seemingly fitting send-off to our time in Namibia. I can’t recommend going enough, and my wife and I truly enjoyed ourselves there. It would have been nice to make it to the Skeleton Ghost Park to see some of the wrecked ships laying scattered off of the coast, but time was a factor for us. Then again, time is a HUGE factor in Namibia, where things are so spread apart and the gravel road to get from one place to another is in pretty rough shape. Maybe that’s why I loved our time in Namibia so much. It’s very much “off the beaten path,” but that path may not be so beaten, after all. From the tiny international airport to the never-ending sand dunes, Namibia was quite the adventure. I could have done without the flat tire, but in the end, it really became the cherry on top what was a great adventure trip.

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Posted in Travel Tagged , , |

White Domes Slot Canyon

This picture falls under the category of “Good Idea, Bad Execution.”

While making plans to visit Las Vegas, I decided to make a trip to a nearby state park and explore some of the canyons surrounding the area.

At the end of one of the scenic drive within the Valley of Fire State Park is the White Domes Loop Trail.  The 1.25 mile hike is fairly popular and extremely colorful. There are beautiful patterns all along the journey and the trail winds through a short slot canyon.  The walls of the canyon feature an intricate “Swiss cheese” texture which were impressive in their own right, but even more-so since I was experiencing them alone on a weekday, without any other tourists around.

That’s where the aforementioned “Good Idea, Bad Execution” comes in.

I decided to make my journey through the park alone and without water. I realized early I had become dehydrated, but by then it was too late to do anything.  I spent the rest of the trip attempting to stay in the shadow of the rocks and avoid thinking about it. For the most part, the White Domes Loop Trail is well-marked, but as one can expect in an area that flash-floods when it rains, some signs and markers weren’t easy to spot.

So there I was dehydrated in the middle of the desert, roasting at 80 degrees in the hot sun, long since without water and unsure of whether I sure turn left or forge straight ahead.

In the middle of everything, I chuckled to myself because it reminded me of the time I went to Gary, Indiana solo to shoot some abandoned buildings. Wandering around crumbling buildings may not have been the best thing to do by myself, either, but at least I had water on that trip.

June 2011. (0575)

Posted in Nature Tagged , |